Safety and Security in the Post-Hiroshima World

Syria and Chemical Weapons: The Most Recent Scare in Context

The major news from Syria last week revolved around a possible use of chemical weapons within the country. As President Obama recently reiterated while visiting Israel last week, it has been his administration’s policy to consider Assad’s use of chemical weapons as a “red line” in terms of pushing the US to intervene in the country, whether directly or indirectly. There have been claims that chemical weapons were used last Tuesday (March 19) in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo. The Assad regime blamed the rebels for the attack, which killed 25 and injured more than 110. In the week since the attack, officials and analysts are becoming less and less convinced that the attack was truly chemical in nature.

Today’s edition of “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” aims to shed light on the most recent claims of chemical weapons use in Syria. While the Assad regime formally denies having chemical weapons, intelligence shows considerable confidence in Syria having stockpiles of chemical agents. During the radio program, Tom Ashbrook discusses the implications of chemical weapons use as well as the probability that the attack actually occurred with guests from CBS news and from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. During the discussion, the participants talk about how the agent supposedly used in the Khan al-Asal attack could have been chlorine that was processed in such a way as to become lethal. This revelation brings up questions of whether the attack could have been carried out by the rebels, considering the agent in question is not sophisticated or expensive by any means. Clarissa Ward, a correspondent from CBS news who has spent considerable time in Syria, further casts doubt on the probability that the Assad regime would have used chemical weapons, calling such a move “dumb.” She says that considering the fact that the use of chemical weapons would draw greater international ire and action along with the reality that Assad has been able to stave off deposition by use of conventional warfare, using chemical weapons would be an irrational move for the regime.

While it may be a while before the story is set straight, there are reports pointing fingers towards the use of an “improvised chemical device”–the chlorine agent mentioned in Ashbrook’s radio program. The Syrian military has said that the agent was carried by a homemade rocket; a civilian medic said he witnessed the Syrian army helping the victims that had been hurt in the attack. Regardless of the details, the attack brought about a rare show of unity between the US, Russia, and Syria, who “[a]ll welcomed the rapid decision by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, to investigate an alleged chemical attack that reportedly killed 26, including Syrian soldiers.”

Meanwhile, there are recent reports of a second attack in the town of Adra near Damascus. In this attack, rebels have accused the Assad regime of firing missiles carrying chemical agents at the town, and doctors have described effects associated with phosphorus. There have been no independent confirmations of the attack. These attacks aren’t the first instance of supposed chemical weapons use–and they’re not the first instance of shaky intelligence either. In December a similar claim was made, prompting similar scrutiny and similar doubts. The questions surrounding the most recent attacks are the same: Did or didn’t the attacks happen? If so, who was the attacker? Why haven’t these supposed attacks qualified for the Obama administration’s “red line” policy? And why is the use of chemical weapons the red line when conventional weapons have been the cause of over 70,000 deaths, countless more injuries, and over 1 million refugees?

Certainly quite a bit to mull over, and as always, there are no easy answers.

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Categorised in: Middle East, News Briefs, Regions, Security Issues, Special Editions, WMD

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